• December 2, 2023

This blog piece can help you figure out how each one is used.

There’s often confusion about how IEPs and 504s are used in a learning setting. Although they’re similar because they grant students some allowances and in class and require a parent or guardian’s consent for evaluation, there are some key differences that you should know.

You’ll understand when to use these terms correctly when you know these differences.

What’s an IEP?

An IEP is short for the Individualized Education Program. It’s a special education plan developed for children in public schools who require special education (those in private schools can still request testing or a plan from their district). A child in a public-school will may require special education if they have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc.

What’s a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is coined from a piece of US Law – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – which guarantees specific rights to people with disabilities. A student at the elementary or college level can obtain a 504 Plan, so they have accommodations if they have specific disabilities, chronic medical or psychological conditions that interfere with learning such as ADHD.

The accommodations granted under a 504 Plan are to ensure the student in question can achieve academic success and access their learning environment despite their disability.

You might’ve already noticed that both plans are targeted at people living with disabilities and/or differences. In any learning environment, proper access for all students, no matter their ability levels, may not be possible. These two plans make it possible for every child to access learning material, no matter what.

Key Differences You Should Know

While these two plans make it possible for people with disabilities to gain a thorough education, there are some key differences. In some cases, a 504 Plan would be appropriate, whereas an IEP would be most effective in other cases.

Here are the key differences you should know:

Not Everyone With a Disability Requires Special Education/Accommodations

IEPs are usually reserved for students with learning disabilities that cannot be managed without separate instruction and learning plans. A student with dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or dyslexia will struggle with every part of a standard school curriculum and thus likely leads to IEP accommodations and specified intervention strategies (ps this isn’t a bad things).

These disabilities do not reflect students’ intelligence levels, they require special assistance to learn the required materials for their grade levels.

A 504 plan, on the other hand, is granted to students who can keep up with schoolwork with suitable accommodations, such as specific accessibility for learning materials.

One Plan Involves Stricter Progress Reports

Both plans require annual updates to ensure that they’re still effective for the students. However, under the design of the IEP, strictly controlled by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), progress reports are mandatory. These progress reports are documents that show the measurable growth of the student using the IEP.

It is my personal opinion that documentation (and everything else, really) is Stricter in IEPs

While there is no standard 504 Plan, IEPs are standardized, detailed, and contain specific details about a child’s education plan, learning history with scheduled annual learning goals.

Likewise, while the team tasked with creating a 504 Plan is not as strict, there are strict legal requirements for who is involved in creating an IEP. An IEP team must have;

  • The child’s parent or guardian
  • At least one of the child’s general education teachers
  • At least one special education teacher or learning specialist
  • A school psychologist or other licensed specialist
  • A representative of the special education services arm of the district

State-funding differences

Students receive IEPs or 504 plans at no charge. However, states receive additional funding for students with IEPs while there is no additional state funding for 504 Plans. Funds for IEPs, as given by the IDEA, cannot be used for 504 Plans.

Challenges with IEPs and 504 Plans

Special education has slowly developed in the United States, but we cannot say it’s been an easy journey. Some challenges remain regarding the access to education for students with disabilities.

In using IEPs, reported challenges are that IEP paperwork and documentation are usually too heavy. Special educators have also complained that the IEPs sometimes do not clearly show what’s required in daily instruction. Even worse, some IEP teams cannot agree on what’s being done for the child; parents are more likely to think their child is not receiving adequate education while teachers think parents are too demanding and aggressive.

On the other hand, one of the significant challenges affecting 504 plans is inadequate funding. More students with disabilities, including students of color, who can benefit from the accommodations of a 504 Plan do not have access to it because schools cannot afford to give it to them.

Now You Know About IEPs and 504 Plans

It’s clear that it is not a perfect system for students with disabilities, but it is a progressive one, and one we can be thankful for despite its many imperfections.

While it’s easy to mistake one special education plan for the other, these two plans address specific needs for different categories of students with disabilities. You can think of the IEP as the more intense of the two plans, addressing the more intense and challenging disabilities that interfere with learning.

I hope this helps!

Desmond utilizes his knowledge of education policy from his undergrad, his Masters of Education from Johns Hopkins, and a variety of advanced certifications such as CHPC and LWT to construct prime academic intervention programs and homework/executive functioning support for all his students.

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